I should really start this post with a disclaimer. We only spent 48 hours in Macau which is not long enough to have any sort of definitive opinion about a place. It’s a small country, but for every street we walked down there were 50 more that we didn’t. I knew practically nothing about Macau before visiting.
In the paragraph above I used the word ‘country’, although technically Macau isn’t one. Up until 1999 it belonged to Portugal in much the same way that its bigger brother Hong Kong belonged to the UK until 1997. And, like Hong Kong, a deal was made by people who knew they wouldn’t be alive to see it through to return it to China after 100 years. That time has now passed, but Big Uncle China has kept Macau somewhat autonomous. It retains its own currency, its own government, its own rules, and they drive on the left-hand side of the road (which was a shock for us on our bicycles). So it isn’t a country, it’s called a ‘Special Administrative Region’, and people traveling from either side of the border have to pass through immigration and customs. Entering Macau meant we were stamped out of China.
The history of Macau under Portuguese control is rich and bloody; the Dutch fought the Portuguese for it but the Portuguese successfully defended it with their best African slaves. The Japanese sort of took over it during WWII, the US bombed it during WWII (they were going after Japanese fuel supplies), and rioting broke out in the ’60s during China’s Cultural Revolution.
There is an excellent video that gives an overview of what Macau (and Hong Kong) actually is. Here’s the YouTube link.
Probably a big part of why China didn’t just say to Macau, “You are now China too,” is that gambling is illegal in China but thriving in Macau thanks to the ‘King of Gambling’, Stanley Ho, who won a public bid to control the gambling monopoly in 1961 and held that monopoly until 2002. The relatively tiny region rakes in more annual revenue from gambling than the Las Vegas strip. That’s not the sort of juggernaut that can be easily stopped. Nestled among the Portuguese architecture and dilapidated high-rise apartments soar towering hotel casinos, oozing with the same forced glamour and faux-European facades of their Vegas counterparts, garish and enticing.
Because of this, there is no tax in the region. In fact, every year each permanent resident of Macau – young and old – gets a government payment of a few thousand patacas. This is known as the ‘Wealth Partaking Scheme’, or ‘Plano de comparticipação pecuniária no desenvolvimento económico’.
“But this year I think it’s going to be less than that. Maybe half,” said Matt, our couchsurfing host and obliging guide to Macau. “There’s been less tourism than last year.”
A citizen of Macau, Matt was young at 19, but he had far more maturity and wisdom than I did at that age (by a long way). On our first night he took us to sit on the grand steps leading down from the famous ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral. We sat with some fizzy drinks and watched clouds turn various hues of purple as the casinos illuminated the sky.
“Just down there,” Matt pointed to the base of the steps, “my father told me there used to be a bloke in the ’80s selling meat. He was arrested because there was a suspicion that it was human meat.”
The meat guy aside, it was interesting to hear Matt use the word ‘bloke’. He’d just come back from a two-month trip through Australia and he’d absorbed an incredible amount of Aussie slang. During our conversations he would continually (and correctly) drop in the following: bloke, sheila, dunny, drongo, too right, smackaroo (I hadn’t even heard of that one – apparently it’s when you hit a kangaroo with your car), hit the sack, and bloody hell.
“You know how Macau got its name?” he asked. We did not know.
“There was a Portuguese bloke who sailed here. He came ashore near a temple and asked the local people what the name of the place was. The temple was called Ma Kok, and that’s what the locals thought he was asking about. He couldn’t pronounce it properly and thought the entire island was called Macau.”
“So what was it actually called?” we asked.
“It’s had a lot of names. I think the last name was Houjing which means Oyster Mirror.”
“Does anyone still call it that?”
“Nah, just Macau.”
Another interesting aspect of Macau is that education is completely free, but apparently the universities there were poorly regarded. Matt was on a gap year – a rare thing in Asia – and was planning on studying medicine in Hong Kong. With his high level of intelligence and ability to soak up information, I’m sure he would have been able to study anything and become a success.
On our only full day in Macau the three of us hopped on the number 25 bus (cycling is a nightmare in the city) and headed over one of the three bridges that separate it. The city is split into three regions: Macau proper which is connected by land to China, and another island which is split into two sections called Taipa, and Coloane. Matt jumped off at Taipa to go swimming, and we carried on to a charming little area in Coloane called Coloane Village. It was a vast change from the heaving bustle of Macau, with cute empty lanes and worn colonial architecture. Even though it was relatively quiet, the village still has a claim to fame: Lord Stow’s Bakery.
In the late ’70s, an Englishman name Andrew Stow (who wasn’t a lord in any way) moved to Macau to become a pharmacist. By the mid-80’s he’d opened a bakery, and in 1989 he began producing what would become a phenomenon – Portuguese egg tarts. These egg tarts are commonplace now throughout Asia, and I’ve had my fair share of them over the years. I had foolishly imagined that they couldn’t get much better that what I’d already tried, but when we went to Lord Stow’s bakery I received a buttery, flaky, creamy, caramalised sugary wakeup call. These were truly the best egg tarts I’d ever devoured. After the success of this little bakery, Lord Stow opened several more bakeries across Asia. Now I see it as my duty, as a human with taste buds, to hunt them down.
We walked from Coloane village along the water’s edge passing by the now derelict ship-building warehouses. From there we passed through a zoo whose claim to fame was a pair of pandas.
The pandas weren’t seeing people that day so we carried on, walking all the way into Taipa and checking out what will probably one day be a strip to rival Las Vegas’. The first complex on our palm-lined stroll was the one-year-old Studio City, an Art Deco style structure themed on old New York and flanked by a pair of enormous chrome statues. The centre of the building boasts the world’s first figure-eight Ferris wheel which is impressive structurally, but even more impressive upon realising that a casino with a giant ‘8’ on it will attract Chinese people like moths to a flame.
The next casino in line was still in the middle of construction. ‘The Parisian’ featured a quarter-sized Eiffel Tower as its centrepiece. The grounds were strewn with numerous diggers and hundreds of workers. Advertising showed bejewelled women beckoning to suited men in expensive cafes with Arc de Triomphe backdrops, the men extending Tag Heuer’d wrists to cast Mont Blanc signatures on whatever bill might cross their path to decadence.
The next stop on this burgeoning strip was the largest gambling hole in Macau: The Venetian. By this point we’d tired of minimalist ‘Shoppes’ with maximalist prices, French bags, Johnny Depp and Hugh Jackman, silver pens that bestowed status orgasms upon the writer, and long lashed, bored-looking assistants. We’d had enough promises of happiness through material upgrades. All casinos are the same on the inside: hope mixed with dread and flashing lights. We got out of there.
There is a real human city underneath the riches. We didn’t find the ‘slums’, although apparently they do exist in the northern part near the border. The main township reminded me, strangely, of Wellington. The narrow lanes, the wind, the fact that cars let you walk if you’re on a pedestrian crossing, the hills, the one-way streets, the compact size, the slow walkers. It also felt like China, but the English writing on people’s t-shirts actually made sense. We ate at cheap noodle shops and struggled with the Cantonese. Our time was so limited that we didn’t get a proper idea of how people functioned, what made them happy, and what kept them in this unique little peninsula, this nubbin on the east coast of China. My thoughts about Macau are a jumbled mess. Perhaps this paragraph illustrates that. One thing is certain: we did not immediately warm to it.
On our second and final evening, Matt took us to The Whiskey Bar on the 17th floor of the Starworld hotel. We watched an all-female Taiwanese band play requests and sipped scotch with ice spheres. Soon, a waitress approached with a stern face and gave a five-finger open palm point at my bare feet. I’d kicked off my sandals and was sitting cross-legged on an expensive armchair. She stared down at me like a criminal, until I’d put my shoes back on and restored equilibrium to the establishment. When the staff realised we couldn’t afford any more than one drink, they brought us the bill and stopped supplying us with free peanuts. We left soon after.
As we walked the glitzy avenues past the Wynn towers, the bulky men with gold chains around their necks, and the high-class prostitutes, a strange feeling came over me that I had completely forgotten I was capable of having. The only time I’d ever experienced this feeling was in Las Vegas many years ago, and I find it almost impossible to describe. It isn’t a pleasant sensation; it’s a kind of disgust mixed with foreboding, like a feeling that this neon wheel could at any moment suck me into it, have its way with me, and then carry on rolling like nothing had happened; a grinning predator, enticing and alluring. So many false promises. The irony of Wynn. Or perhaps it was the Laphroaig.
The next morning everything was normal again. The city felt more like a typical Chinese town. We ate rice rolls at a shop run by a friendly people who laughed as they practiced their English on us. Our incredibly short time in Macau had come to an end, and the ever-helpful and generous Matt walked us through a light drizzle to a ferry bound for Hong Kong.